The new “rules” of the workplace are being defined as computers are frantically being programmed to take the lead in the workplace, when it comes to judgment and intuition. We humans need to be the idea generators, the motivators, the negotiators, and the trouble-shooters to fix computer errors, if we want to govern our emerging digital environments. In short, we need to get closer to our firms, be more tightly integrated and intimate with work performance than ever before… which means the role and tenure of the much-derided middle-manager in the Dilbert Cartoons could be taking on a whole new potential twist – and a whole new (potential) level of relevance.
I would go as far as declaring 2018 as a new beginning of the value of the full-time employee – where alignment with the mission, spirit, culture, energy and context of an organization has never been so important. We are seeing the value of contract work diminish as so much “outsource-able” work is so much easier to automate and global labor drives down the cost of getting things done quickly and easily. Business success is more about investing in the core than ever – and that core includes the people who are the true pieces of human middleware to hold everything together.
The onus is circling back to the value of being a full-time employee, who needs to value the fruits of having a predictable income and adapt to the changing balance of how humans need to work with computers.
Remember when the rise of the gig worker was supposed to revamp how so many of us worked, as we escaped the shackles of the “evil employer”?
Almost two decades ago, the internet was creating the independent worker, as exemplified in Dan Pink’s timeless book “Free Agent Nation: How America’s New Independent Workers are Transforming the Way We Live” became the seminal guide for what is now known as the “gig worker”.
Furthermore, unless recent research from McKinsey of 8000 workers can now be categorized as fake news, 162 million people in Europe and the United States—or 20 to 30 percent of the working-age population—engage in some form of independent work today. And a recent study from freelance site Upwork (which undoubtedly wants to hype the impact of gig world) cranks up the numbers even further, claiming that a staggering 50% of US millennials are already freelancing, before declaring the freelance sector will comprise the majority of the US workforce within a decade. Wow.
So are the days of being gainfully employed really disintegrating before our very eyes? Or is the gig hype beginning to atrophy for many people?
The gig economy is becoming a tough place to craft a living if many of the new reports are to be believed. And it’s not just about driving Ubers, delivering food orders and contracting for logistics firms – i.e., working for businesses that exploit the gig economy to drive down labor costs and improve services. It’s the freelance gig economy where people forge a living writing code, supporting content development, delivering consulting work on-demand etc. Even that lovely Upwork research admits: “While finances are a challenge for all, freelancers experience a unique concern — income predictability. The study found that, with the ebbs and flows of freelancing, full-time freelancers dip into savings more often (63 percent at least once per month versus 20 percent of full-time non-freelancers)”. So even if the most biased of sources admits most gig workers can’t cover their living costs, we can conclude that those “Free Agents”, which McKinsey describes as the gig worker sector using gig work as its primary income, are not in a sustainable earning situation.
Today, it’s a buyer’s market for gig work
You only need to spend a little time on LinkedIn to observe just how many people are now marketing their wares as solo free agents, or as part of a company bearing their name. It’s abundantly clear that so many people have decided to set themselves up as independents, that the market for gig talent is saturated and it’s become a “buyers’ market” for gig work. Whether I want to commission a crack consultant to validate some RPA software, hire an analyst to endorse my product, commission a writer to produce a white-label assessment of an emerging market, produce a go-to-market strategy for my business, redesign my website, my logo, or just have someone support my business on a part-time basis… today, I am spoiled for choice. I barely need to hire fulltime employees these days, unless they are truly core to keeping my business ticking along – and I can create real competition to get the work done for much lower costs than a few short years ago.
On top of the risks of commoditizing gig work, we have to contend with the impact of automation and Machine Learning to stay relevant and worthy of earning a paycheck
We’re not in a world rejecting human work, but a world where work is rapidly changing – and the skills of the dynamic middle manager has never been so important. In short, the increasing availability of computing power to crunch massive amounts of data, coupled with advancing tools to tag and label data and workflow clusters with breakthrough programming in languages such as Python for syntax and R for data visualization, are the game-changers that will increasingly impact how we get work done, as we develop continually smarter algorithms to keep teaching computers to do the work of the human brain.
What’s more, the rapid development of Machine Learning (ML) environments such as Google’s TensorFlow, the Microsoft’s Azure Machine Learning Workbench, Amazon’s Sagemaker, Caffe and Alibaba’s Aliyun are becoming the new environments driving armies of coders and developers to align themselves with ML value – desperate to stay relevant (and well paid) against the headwinds of commoditization of legacy coding and app development.
As ML takes over judgment and (eventually) intuition, the human-value onus moves to interaction, agenda-setting, problem defining and idea generation
In short, the disruptive ML techniques are teaching computers to do what comes naturally to humans: to learn by example. Today’s emerging ML tools use massive amounts of data and computing power to simulate neural networks that imitate the human brain’s connectivity, classifying data sets and finding patterns and correlations between them.
Net-net, pattern-matching jobs are increasingly being affected by ML – vocations such as radiologists, pathologists, financial advisors, lawyers, procurement executives, accountants etc. are all being challenged as judgment work is (gradually) being replaced by smart algorithms. However, as elements of these types of jobs are being affected, other job elements become even more important, namely interacting with other humans, creating, setting the agenda, defining and finding the problems to go after. They motivate, they persuade, they negotiate, they coordinate. They are the dynamic conduits of driving information and ideas in an organization and will be increasingly in the driving seat as Machine Learning advancements increasingly take hold. The digital middle manager who can bring a team together and lead people in the right direction does not exist and likely never will…. I’d be amazed if we saw one emerge soon.
Fulltime employment is now becoming a premium situation
Having predictability of income, healthcare costs covered, guaranteed paid vacation time – and a constant supply of work to do – is fast becoming the dream scenario for the disgruntled gig worker. So here’s a thought – go get a JOB. Or if you’re in a job and wanted to try the gig work thing… spare a thought for what your ideal situation looks like, because last time I looked, most firms are doing everything they can to avoid hiring well-paid staff… especially if they can get the work done much cheaper from desperate gig workers.
The Bottom-Line: Five steps to keeping your job:
i) Become the conduit of ideas and information that is irreplaceable right across your organization. So we’ve now come full circle, where the value of having people really close to the business is becoming more important than ever, as computers perform more and more of the routine and judgement based tasks. To the point, the value of the full-time employee goes both ways: companies need people who really understand their institutional processes, their quirks and ways of getting things done… who are onhand to troubleshoot mistakes, but also there to keep the ideas flowing to keep the business ahead of its competition and close to its customers. “Human middleware” is becomimg the real OneOffice glue to break down those siloes and help govern a slick business operation from front to back office.
ii) Develop a positive attitude by finding aspects of your job you do like. Your full time job is likely the best gig-work you will probably ever get, so even if you hate your boss and most of your colleagues, ask yourself if you’d prefer scrapping around for the boring work other companies prefer to outsource. Focus on the interesting stuff you can do and keep reminding yourself that the grass is rarely greener elsewhere. Unless you are a whizz at Python development, the chances are your job-hopping days are numbered and you need to figure out how to stay put and make it better for yourself.
iii) Motivate yourself and become a real motivator. Being motivated – and helping to motivate others – is probably the least computerizable trait of all. If you aren’t motivated, you are placing yourself at risk when your leadership assess which of their team then want to take them forward into the future. If you really can’t get yourself excited about what you do, or your company just demotivates you in such a way you can’t dig yourself out of your rut, then you may need to take that Python course and brush up your resume…
iv) Let the computers take the lead and become the controller to fix mistakes double checking, intervening when the computers do something dumb. Humans and computers make different kinds of mistakes, so we really need to bring humans and computers together intelligently to cancel out each other’s mistakes. Fighting automation and ML is a lost cause, especially when your firm is completely bought in to the concept and it rolling out bots and working on developing smart algorithms. Just let these things take the lead and them figure out how to make them functional and monitor their errors, ad computers will always keep making them. You can’t fight innovation, but you can nurture it, manage it and troubleshoot it.
v) Find your pareto balance and stop whining. Nothing in life including your current or prospective employer will be perfect. Focus on the 80% that is right, versus making yourself (and others around you) miserable by the other 20%. There is rarely a perfect fit where workers only get to focus 100% on all the things they love to do… there has to be this 80/20 compromise, or you will be forever hopping around trying to find a workplace nirvana that doesn’t exist. And it today’s social world your reputation follows you around like never before… and employers are steering clear of the whiners at all costs.